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Oculus Connect 2014: VR Figureheads Slip Comfortably into New Roles as Company Delivers the Next Best Thing to the Consumer Rift

Precious few companies will ever get to experience the kind of whirlwind year that Oculus VR has enjoyed in 2014. Just nine months ago the team debuted a new prototype for its Oculus Rift virtual reality (VR) head-mounted display (HMD) and now, barely two months after that prototype’s relevant development kit shipped, we have another. And that’s without mentioning the acquisitions, hires and other announcements which have kept the company in the headlines throughout the year, all of which was capped off with yesterday’s Oculus Connect developer conference in Hollywood, California.

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The event, which was packed with presentations, talks and panels, may not have hosted the reveal of the anticipated consumer Oculus Rift, but it did showcase the next best thing while also delivering on some aspects that will prove equally as important to the company’s future going forward.

Crucially, VR developers and fans got to see key Oculus VR figureheads tackle new roles and challenges, pulling them off with reassuring ease. CEO and co-founder Brendan Iribe has proved to be a capable public speaker in the past, but has never really had the stage to himself. That changed yesterday when he opened up Oculus Connect’s full day with a comforting, homely address that saw him refer to the entire VR community of over 100,000 people worldwide as a team, speaking with the confidence that one might expect on stage at E3 press conferences while keeping the focus much more personal and convincing than most executives can convey.

Of course, the most significant part of Iribe’s speech was the reveal of the new Crescent Bay prototype for the Oculus Rift, which we’ll discuss shortly. This formed the start of a one-two punch combination as VP of product Nate Mitchell swiftly took the stage soon after the announcement to reveal new updates in the software department. Again, Mitchell was a natural fit in this role, proudly delivering the news of both Epic Games’ latest VR demo, Showdown, and an exciting new partnership with Unity. These announcements might not be the kind of blowout on VR software that some may have been hoping for, but it was proof that, when that time comes, Oculus VR will be ready to make the announcements in the right way.

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The developer conference then started to focus more on developers with Chief Scientist Michael Abrash’s keynote. The former Valve developer undeniably had a tough job following up Iribe and Mitchell’s announcements, but calmly settled into a steady pace with the first talk of the day to truly benefit developers themselves. In fact, Abrash might have had the most significant announcement in the long-term with the reveal of Oculus Research, a fully-backed team that will be looking into improving VR for years to come while the rest of the company works out what will fit for the consumer launch.

And then there was John Carmack. With the legendary developer missing out on a lengthy QuakeCon speech for the first time in years, there was undeniable excitement in the air for his return to the stage in the build up to Oculus Connect, arguably even more so than for whatever announcements the company might make. Needless to say, Carmack’s keynote delivered in spades as he triumphantly took to the stage and told a giddy audience that he wouldn’t be leaving until he was chased off. It had the feeling of the opening of a rock concert except that when rock bands make such statements it’s usually for show. When John Carmack says he’s staying until he’s told to go, he really means it.

What followed was, as expected, an astoundingly in-depth talk delivered at a speed that only the most clued-up VR developers will have been able to completely process. Throughout the talk developers littered Twitter with drooling tweets about Carmack himself, who focused mainly on developing for Samsung’s Gear VR smartphone-based HMD that he has been working on for much of 2014.  Having jokingly stated that he was free from the leer of PR at the start, he delivered the goods on his time with the Korean technology giant, talking about what it was doing right and wrong and how he had convinced them to employ certain techniques.

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Those that were left wanting to hear more after organisers finally interrupted Carmack’s keynote, which had run, far, far behind schedule, got their wishes in ‘The Future of VR’ Panel. Here the day’s speakers (bar Iribe) were joined by Oculus Rift designer Palmer Luckey and Chief Architecht Atman Binstock for a conversation that essentially placed the audience as a fly on the wall of an Oculus VR meeting room. Carmack often mentioned ‘internal arguments’ about the development of the Oculus Rift and you could see plenty of examples of that here as he and Michael Abrash clashed on topics such as content while Luckey chimed in with suggestions of unorthodox methods and more.

All told, the keynotes were a sign that Oculus VR as a company is slowly coming together much like the Oculus Rift is as a consumer product. True, the company has more than doubled in size at an alarming rate, but it’s just as cautious as ever not to get ahead of itself on addressing consumers directly and referencing VR’s current state as anything but the beginning of a long journey.  The wait for the consumer Oculus Rift has been excruciating and watching the company’s top brass bicker about the future on stage suggested that there’s still a long way to go, but it was also yet another sign that the technology is in good hands with these visionaries that truly care about their work. And in the long run, that’s far more important than the thinning patience of a group of early adopters.

Crescent Bay might not have been the announcement many had hoped for. While an undeniable improvement over even the second development kit (DK2), some had dared dream that the next iteration of the HMD really would be the one that was deemed consumer-ready. Even then, news on the rumoured internally-developed controller might have been a wiser reveal given the close proximity to the launch of DK2 and the increasing need for a definitive VR input solution. All the same, it’s always exciting to see how the vision of the HMD is evolving and Iribe’s comments on Crescent Bay being a big leap towards the consumer version still keep the hope of seeing that kit sooner than later alive.

Oculus Connect 2014 was an incredibly significant day for Oculus VR and the VR community, then. It proved that the former is growing into the company that has the vision and infrastructure to bring VR to the mainstream over the course of the coming years and offered a glimpse of how the company might look when it is finally ready to start talking to consumers. The wait for the consumer Oculus Rift may go on, but it’s clearer than ever that Palmer Luckey and co will be able to deliver.